TIFFIN, Ohio – The first half was about Derek Hug. The second half ended with tearful hugs.
In the first round of the NCAA Division III Football Championships, Wittenberg University erased a 22-point first half deficit and rallied to defeat Heidelberg University 52-38 in front of 2,214 fans at Frost-Kalnow Stadium.
Heidelberg started fast, with touchdowns on four of their first five possessions. Three of the touchdowns went to Derek Hug (Bryan), a freshman, who had no touchdowns on the season prior to the game.
Hug’s first touchdown was on a 23-yard pass from Michael Mees (North Ridgeville). Dan Kilger (Novi) added the extra point to give Heidelberg a 7-0 lead.
After Wittenberg kicker Sean Williams connected on a 41-yard field goal, Heidelberg scored on a Mees quarterback sneak that was set up by a long rush from Bryan Lacey (South Euclid/Benedictine).
On the ensuing kickoff, Chadd Williamson (Land ‘O Lakes, FL) forced a Wittenberg fumble, recovered by Austin Bentz (Tiffin/Columbian).
On the next play, Mees hit Hug for a 19-yard touchdown. Kilger’s point-after put Heidelberg out in front 21-3.
Wittenberg opened the scoring in the second, as Williams hit his second field goal of the half, a 35-yarder, to cut the lead to 21-6.
Mees found Hug for another score on a pass down the left sideline. Hug snuck inside the pylon to push the ‘Berg lead to 28-6.
Mees finished with 248 yards passing, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Tigers scored their first touchdown of the game on the next possession, as quarterback Reed Florence found Brendon Cunningham for a five-yard touchdown. Williams added the extra point to make the score 28-13.
Heidelberg’s special teams had a hard time handling a bouncing squib kick from Wittenberg and the Tigers pounced on the football. With momentum shifting toward their sideline, Wittenberg tried to capitalize. Florence threw a pass into the end zone, but it was intercepted by Chase Bauer (Amelia/McNicholas).
After the teams traded punts, Heidelberg drove down the field in the waning moments of the first half. Kilger knocked in a 38-yard field goal as time expired. The Student Princes had the lead, 31-13, and seemed to have momentum.
The second half belonged to Wittenberg.
A pass-happy Wittenberg attack began to click together. In the third quarter, the Tigers scored twice – a 29-yard field goal and a seven-yard touchdown pass from Florence to Cunningham.
Trailing 31-23 to start the fourth, Wittenberg faced third-and-33 from their own 23. Receiver Desi Kirkman found a seam down the middle of the Heidelberg defense and caught a 35-yard pass for a first down. Three plays later, Florence hit a wide open Jonathan Stoner for a 40-yard touchdown. The Tigers tied the game with a two-point conversion.
Another mishandled squib kick was recovered by Wittenberg, who cashed in seven plays later. Florence threw a fade route to Kirkman to give Wittenberg their first lead of the game.
On the next Heidelberg play, a hard hit forced Lacey to fumble the ball back to Wittenberg. Another seven-play touchdown drive was capped by Florence’s fifth touchdown of the game. This one, a 10-yard strike to Cunningham, pushed the Tiger lead to 45-31.
Florence, a junior, finished 31-of-49 passing for 346 yards, five touchdowns and an interception.
With their hopes dwindling, Heidelberg scored their only second half points on a Lacey 17-yard touchdown rush with just over six minutes to play.
Lacey, starting for the second straight game in place of Cartel Brooks (Kokomo, IN/Galion) finished with 151 yards and a touchdown. Brooks was limited to three carries.
Heidelberg’s defense stood tall and forced a Wittenberg punt. Heidelberg took over at their 30 yard line with 3:12 to play and three timeouts.
After gaining two first downs, Heidelberg faced third-and-one from the Wittenberg 36. Lacey rushed for an apparent first down, but a holding penalty pushed the Student Princes back. After an incompletion intended for CJ Powell (Detroit/Bishop Foley) forced fourth down, Heidelberg called a timeout to set up a play.
Unfortunately for the large orange-clad crowd of Heidelberg fans, the pass on fourth down was intercepted by Heath Eby, who returned it 60 yards for a touchdown.
After an interception on a desperation heave by Mees, Wittenberg took a knee to end the game.
“I’m certainly disappointed right now, but not discouraged,” said sixth-year head coach Mike Hallett. “Today does not diminish the greatness this team has exemplified all season long.”
After their postgame huddle, the Student Princes embraced one another with emotive hugs and hearty handshakes. As they retreated to their locker room, they received a rousing round of applause from the home fans.
“The resounding support we’ve received from, not only the Tiffin community, but also the greater Seneca County community, has been unbelievable,” said Hallett. “The fans that were out there cheering on Heidelberg were really inspiring.”
With the loss, Heidelberg will finish 9-2. The nine wins are the most for Heidelberg since the 1972 team finished 11-0 and won the Stagg Bowl.
Wittenberg (10-1) advances to face Hobart next Saturday.